Who we are is the Universe peering into itself from billions of points of view. – Alan Watts
Zen teaching emphasizes the most important of all koans: “Who/what am I?” Of course we have an immediate answer that it is “me,” a human being, a mind and body with a history and identity; to which the master replies, “Superficially yes, but you must go deeper, go deeper. Who/what is this ‘me’? Meditate on this.”
When you meditate, what is happening? Is not meditation the stepping back of the sense of self from entanglement in sensations, thoughts and emotions into looking at the sensations, thoughts and emotions that flow through the field of mind? So who/what is looking? It cannot be the sensations, thoughts and emotions because they are what is being looked at. Perhaps it works to say the sensations, thoughts and emotions are the egoic “me,” a personality with unique traits, but at the most fundamental level, who/what is looking?
A very powerful practice can be to close your eyes and try meditating on the view beyond your closed eyelids. You must realize that the closing of the eyelids does not extinguish the faculty of vision, it simply keeps it from being entangled in the immediate environment. In a sense we are looking into infinity. This can be very liberating and enlightening. So returning to the koan, who/what is looking into infinity? Is it your mind of thoughts and emotions? It is quite possible that while doing this meditation, thoughts have ceased entirely, so certainly it is not the mind of thought. Typically those initiated into meditation will answer that it is awareness that looks, but what is this awareness?
We have stumbled upon the energy of consciousness, that which we never give any consideration to in our culture. Like fish swimming in water that have no sense of water, it is very difficult for us to have a sense of consciousness since consciousness is the constant of our experience. We focus attention on the varying and changing contents of consciousness but not on consciousness itself. Of course without consciousness we would have no experience of anything, but what happens when we begin to be aware of awareness, of consciousness? Going deeper, we must now ask what is this consciousness?
Ancient Vedic culture, the precursor to Hindu and Buddhist culture, described the origin of existence as a universal consciousness (Brahma) that brought forth the form of the world and all the forms in the world, including human, and these forms are pervaded with consciousness and the consciousness of a human being is a microcosmic extension (Atman) of that macrocosmic consciousness. Modern quantum and field theory physics describes a universe that is a unified field of proto-energy out of which the energy of matter as sub-atomic particles spontaneously emerge and then engage in the great dance of merging and joining and complexifying that eventually leads to a human being with a brain that is the most complex organization of matter in the known universe. Furthermore, experiments and theoretical extrapolation have us stunned by evidence that the behavior of these sub-atomic particles, even the way they manifest varyingly as particle energy or wave energy, demonstrates consciousness and the capacity for inter-particle communication. It seems this ancient cosmology that expresses existence in poetic language may well be finding validation through modern science!
In our human-centered culture and religions, we limit assigning meaningful consciousness to humans while acknowledging limited consciousness in animals, but is this an accurate identification of the realm of consciousness? Consciousness is defined in a google search as “The state of being awake and aware of one’s surroundings,” “The awareness or perception of something by a person,” and “The fact of awareness by the mind of itself and the world. Consciousness emerges from the operations of the brain.” Immediately we are struck by identification of consciousness in these conventional definitions with humans and with the brain. But, does a tree not have consciousness that turns its leaves to the sun, that causes its roots to reach to nourishment and water sources, that has trees even communicating with and nurturing other trees, as recent studies are indicating? Is there not a type of consciousness that beats the heart and moves the lungs and performs a thousand intricate and balanced functions in every animal organism? What of indigenous peoples who believed and lived within a world in which mountains and rivers, even rocks or places on the ground manifested different qualities of consciousness and even spoke to them? Was this just superstition or a more refined ability to sense and resonate with consciousness that pervades all things? Vedic culture believed that rather than consciousness emanating from us, we emanate from consciousness. We are not a body and mind that has consciousness, we are consciousness that has a body and mind.
What if the answer to who/what am I? is that we are a biological technology evolved over 14 billion years by the Universe to interact creatively with itself, and that these complex brains that have a neural network design tantalizingly similar to the extrapolated patterns of the network structure of dark matter and energy (which make up 96% of the Universe) are microscopic reflections of this macroscopic design that function as receivers and tuners for consciousness energy originating from and as the infinite vastness of the Universe entering into the finite? What if what we are is a portal for consciousness energy between the dimensions of the infinite and the finite? The intuited truth of this postulation is in the summation of ancient Vedic cosmology voiced by Alan Watts in the opening quote of this column and there is no question that Buddhism has clearly identified the essence of who we are as awareness, the field of consciousness energy though which flows all the content of mind. All that is left to have a cosmology and ontology that reconnects the human experience to the Universal is the recognition that the energy of consciousness is not personal, but rather universal, and that awareness is the individual channeling of this energy that pervades the Universe.
We currently have no sense of ourselves within an unfolding evolving cosmos and this leaves us adrift and insecure in the vastness of the universe, and so too on our planet, in our societies, our families, even our own skin. Even when people do look at the stars, it is usually within a romantic sense centered on themselves. But what if when looking into the starlit sky we could see ourselves? What if we could see in the stars the source of every atom that comprises our bodies and the world around us and to have a sense that our eyes are the eyes of the Universe looking into itself, infinity gazing into the finite as well as the finite gazing into the infinite? Would we not be more likely to see our existence as a responsibility to serve as an instrument of the Universe realizing itself – given the gift of a planet that is paradise – and would this not lead us to behave not as destructive consumers but in ways that honor the sacred task we have of understanding, preserving and creating within a great intimate dance?
Cosmologist Brian Swimme offers and warns, “We need to put our energy into inventing new cultural forms for initiating ourselves into an ecstatic sense of involvement with the community of beings that is the very universe. If we refuse to devote ourselves to this work, we’ll just have to make the necessary adjustments to deal with the river of misery flowing out of the perverse way of life yoking insatiable greed with drugs known as consumerism. Cosmology when it is alive and healthy in a culture evokes in the human a deep zest for life, a zest that is satisfying and revivifying.” We could at last feel at home and with purpose in the Universe, on this planet, in our societies, our families and in our own skins.
Zen is the simplest yet most challenging of practices – it is to train in experiencing the simultaneity of the day-to-day with the eternal, the finite with the infinite, to know we are always both here in the most immediate way and in the vastness of existence. “Be here now” is not just a catchy phrase – it is the essential koan directing us to experience how we exist as immediately as this place where our feet stand and our senses perceive AND we are that which can only be perceived with the intuitive sense – that sense which our culture ignores completely – as infinite, the vast Universe that is also the here and now. Breathe and be. We are this flesh and blood AND the dust of stars AND the infinite streaming energy of timeless and boundaryless consciousness. To walk the world in this knowing is Zen. It is to be complete and free of the insecurity of never being enough that has plagued humanity for millennia. When we know we are a wave on the vast ocean of infinite consciousness energy, meaning we are also the ocean, it is more than enough. Wherever we are, it is home.